The Mediterranean remains the most popular cruise choice for Brits, but there’s a lot more to it than you might think. Its sheer size and diversity of destinations allow for a number of alternative itineraries that avoid the overcrowded parts, writes Anthony Pearce.
While the Caribbean may be the most popular cruise destination worldwide, when it comes to the UK market the Mediterranean reigns supreme. According to Clia, between January and September last year UK guests took 444,000 cruises to the region – the majority as fly-cruises, but increasingly from UK ports. Broadly, these cruises are divided into west and east itineraries, with Barcelona, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Venice and Dubrovnik among the blockbuster hits.
It’s no surprise then that these holidays are so popular, particularly during the summer month: who can resist these sun-kissed hotbeds of culture, civilisation and superb food? Nearly every major cruise line sails to the Mediterranean (with the notable exception of Carnival Cruise Line, which will return in 2020), with the likes of MSC Bellissima, Disney Magic, Celebrity Edge and the refitted Independence of the Seas operating there this summer.
But it’s because of these famous ships, celebrated ports of call and the divide between western and eastern itineraries that it’s easy to oversimplify what a Mediterranean cruise entails. There is, in fact, an incredible amount of choice. When you study a map, it’s no surprise. The Mediterranean is a huge area: the sea covers 2,500,000 square kilometres, and is almost completely surrounded by land. Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and Greece all have Mediterranean coastlines, as do Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and even Syria, Lebanon and Libya in north Africa and the Middle East; while Malta and Cyprus are island countries in the sea.
As talk of overtourism in some of the Mediterranean’s best-known ports continues, cruise lines are increasingly looking to offer alternatives. This summer, for example, Princess Cruises is operating an ex-UK sailing on Sapphire Princess that takes in Malaga, Corsica’s capital Ajaccio, Sète in France and Spanish/Moroccan Ceuta. It departs July 27, from £1,349pp.
It’s worth remembering that many Mediterranean cruises go beyond Europe, even in week-long itineraries. Celestyal Cruises’ new seven-night Three Continents cruise, which launches in December, is a round trip from Athens to Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt; Ashdod, Israel; Limassol, Cyprus; Rhodes, Greece; and Kusadasi, Turkey. There are departures on December 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30, during the off-peak season (from £1059pp).
While it’s no surprise that most want to take advantage of the hot summers, it’s still warm in autumn and not inhospitable in winter. In Dubrovnik, for example, the average temperature is 18°C in October, 14°C in November, 11°C in December and 9°C in January. With cheaper air fares and, sometimes, cruise fares, plus fewer crowds, seeing the Med in winter can be a thoroughly enjoyable, more relaxing experience – particularly for clients hoping to see historic landmarks, where queues can be unbearable in summer. Viking Cruises offers a number of off-season itineraries, including its 10-day Empires of the Mediterranean (Venice to Athens) and 22-day Antiquities of the Mediterranean (Venice to Rome), which take in classic Med ports such as Naples, Dubrovnik and Kotor, but at a time when many ships are back in the Caribbean (from £3,490pp and £7,440pp respectively).
Another option is a coastal cruise: CroisiEurope, the river cruise line known for traversing unusual rivers such as the Loire and Guadalquivir, runs a seven-night coastal cruise round trip from Larnaca, Cyprus that explores the treasures of the Holy Land. The cruise calls at Haifa, Israel and Limassol and includes two excursions to Jerusalem and Nazareth as well as optional excursions to Bethlehem and Jericho, Galilee, Nicosia, Kyrenia and Paphos (from £1,062 per person, with departures between January and March 2020).
Intrepid Travel has a new Greece and Turkey itinerary that explores the Cyclades on a yacht, which accommodates a maximum of 47 guests. In Greece, the cruise takes in the rock-hewn monastery in Amorgos, ancient archaeological sites such as Delos and Akrotiri, and, in Turkey, the ruins of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Prices start from £2,350 per person for an eight-day tour and include accommodation, transportation by bus and small ship, varied activities and select meals.
Filippos Venetopoulos, general manager, marine, at Intrepid Travel, says: “The Mediterranean is a popular destination for UK cruisers and the likes of Barcelona, Rome and Venice tend to be hotspots. But the region is diverse and has a lot more to offer. As part of Intrepid’s recently launched small ship Adventure Cruising range, we explore less-travelled regions and smaller ports, taking travellers away from the crowds.”
Azamara Club Cruises is another cruise line that takes in some of the Med’s lesser-known ports of call, particularly its 11-night Greece Intensive Voyage, which visits intimate ports including Gythion, Chania and Patmos. As a company that prides itself on ‘destination immersion’, it also has a number of impressive excursions, including a taste of village life in Croatia, where guests head to the village of Cilipi and the home of a local family. Here, they learn about the family’s rich history of producing fine brandy, olive oil and wines and sit down to a traditional home-cooked meal. In Italy, guests on Azamara have the chance to experience Italian farm life at a Campania dairy, producer of mozzarella cheese in Pontecagnano.
As we pointed out in the last issue of Cruise Adviser (Small wonders, March 2019), small ships offer a chance to see ports that larger ships cannot access. Seabourn’s 11-day Mediterranean Islands Odyssey (departing May 1, from £3,999pp) not only takes in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain, but also Palma De Mallorca, Spain; Syracuse, Italy; Golfo Aranci (Costa Smeralda), Sardinia, Italy; and Calvi, Corsica. Star Clippers’ Star Flyer and Royal Clipper also sail the Mediterranean, calling at ports such as Gozo, the Maltese Island; Piran, Slovenia and Rovinj, Croatia.